Acoustic Sciences Corporation (ASC) SmartTrap Reviewed

Acoustic Sciences Corporation (ASC) SmartTrap Reviewed

Andrew Robinson tries out a new acoustic treatment for his reference system, the SmartTrap from the Acoustic Sciences Corporation, again exploring how treating your room can help your system sing.

ASC_SmartTrap_acoustic_treatment_review.gifAcoustic Sciences Corporation or ASC is arguably the grandfather of today's modern acoustic treatment movement. Their first ever product, the TubeTrap, was introduced in 1984 by its designer and ASC founder Arthur Noxon and has been so popular that it is still in production today, albeit with some modifications. The TubeTrap has been so successful that it is virtually synonymous with room acoustics much in the same way the word Xerox is for copy machines or Kleenex is for tissues. Furthermore, no other acoustical treatment product has garnered more awards or been used in as many professional recording spaces as Noxon's TubeTrap.

Additional Resources
• Read more AV racks and furniture reviews by the staff at Home Theater Review.
• Learn more about putting a room together by Andrew Robinson.

Today ASC has grown into a full fledged acoustic treatment manufacturer designing and building products that address a number of acoustical needs and issues for a wide variety of clientele. Among ASC's newest product offerings is their SmartTrap line of acoustical products reviewed here. The SmartTrap family of products include, surprise, surprise, a number of TubeTraps as well as HalfRounds (289/ea), SoundPanels ($119/ea), PolyDiffusers ($229/ea) and AcousticSconces ($139/ea). ASC states that the SmartTrap family of products is aimed at providing consumers with a "complete acoustical tool kit" for any room.

SmartTrap products are available for purchase through ASC's dealer network. If there isn't an ASC dealer in your area, customers are encouraged to contact ASC to find a dealer to work through, either by phone or via the Internet. My SmartTrap review setup consisted of two 16-inch diameter SmartTraps ($488/ea), four 13-inch diameter SmartTraps ($389/ea), eight 11-inch diameter SmartTraps ($338/ea) and two 14-inch wide SoundPanels ($119/ea) for a total of 16 acoustical treatments at $5,474 retail. All SmartTraps measure three feet tall but ASC has other products that can be customized to nearly any height. SmartTrap products come in three standard finishes, black, grey and tan - with my review samples being shipped in the latter.

SmartTraps, like ASC's original TubeTraps, treat a number of acoustic issues within a single design. For starters all SmartTraps help to break up low frequency waves aka bass while also providing high adjustable frequency diffusion and absorption. The result, according to ASC, is a finely tuned sound that is neither overly damp nor bright, which I'll get to in a bit. Of course the SmartTrap's low frequency performance is dictated by its diameter with the larger diameter traps able to tame frequencies lower than those with less size to them. For instance the largest of the traps that I was sent, the 16-inch diameter full-round SmartTrap, works down to 55Hz. The 13-inch diameter traps are effective down to 70Hz with the smaller, 11-inch diameter rounds, reaching down to 90Hz. But as I mentioned above, the full-round SmartTraps also provide diffusion, which, unlike their low frequency performance, is constant, providing high frequency diffusion from 400Hz and above. Even ASC's SoundPanels help absorb frequencies from 190Hz as well as diffuse frequencies above 500Hz. All of the SmartTrap products manage to pull off the double threat, absorbing low frequencies while diffusing highs, thanks in part to their unique construction.

The Hookup
Before I get into what I've dubbed "ASC moving day," it's important to note that there's a lot more to the process of treating your room than simply buying and installing a couple of tube traps. For starters, ASC and its highly trained dealer base aren't about to let you address your acoustic challenges blind or even alone. Potential customers are encouraged to speak with their dealers, who will consult with ASC directly when deciding which products will work best.

For the purposes of this review ASC treated me like any other client who didn't have a local dealer; they even asked me to call in and go through a very simple yet cordial question and answer session with an ASC project advisor. Afterwards, the ASC project advisor instructed me to make a detailed drawing of my room, complete with measurements, indicating every opening, hallway, window, cubby etc. Along with my drawing they asked me to stand in the middle of my room and with a simple point and shoot camera (I used my iPhone 4) take a series of photographs that would give the folks over at ASC a 360-degree view of my room. Once completed, I sent both the drawing and photos over to ASC via email and in a little over 24 hours received a response. Surprisingly ASC's initial response didn't include any recommendations for which products to purchase; instead it was a list of suggestions of how I could improve my room without spending a penny. Wow.

A few of the suggestions were a bit drastic, such as moving the entrance to my kitchen, but I appreciated ASC's attention to detail. I found out later that many of the suggestions came from Mr. Noxon himself, which was doubly cool for very few founders have anything to do with their own companies, let alone get their "hands dirty" these days. After a few brief email chats between myself and ASC explaining what I could and couldn't accommodate in terms of modifications to my room/home, they were ready to make their recommendation(s). A few days later I received very detailed CAD drawings of not only my room but of the various SmartTraps located within and how I should arrange them based on the unique properties of my room.

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Truth be told, the suggestions and arrangements seemed a bit dramatic for I was prepared for ASC to come back with a pretty basic layout - traps in the corners, panels on the first and second order reflections and so on. Instead I got a schematic suggesting a layout unlike anything I'd ever seen and something that was 180-degree different than what was recommended to me by GIK Acoustics, who originally did the acoustical design of my room. I contacted ASC after receiving the drawings to ask them about their unique plan and they told me that for the absolute best performance in my primary listening position I should set up the various traps as suggested but they also encouraged me to experiment too. A few weeks later 13 boxes arrived with the various SmartTraps inside.

Read more about the set up and performance of the SmartTraps on Page 2.
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One by one I unpacked the entire lot of SmartTraps and one by one
began placing them about my room, first in accordance with ASC's
recommended setup and later in a more generic fashion. ASC's proposed
arrangement dictated that I put the larger 16-inch SmartTraps in the
left front corner with the slightly smaller 13-inch SmartTraps in the
right corner to combat the fact that I had a large opening leading into
my kitchen three feet off my right speaker. Next, they had me stack the
remaining two 13-inch SmartTraps atop each other and place them dead
center of my back wall or in line with my primary listening position.
From there I was to place four, 11-inch SmartTraps, two per side, in
line with the front baffles of my Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers.
ASC included two SoundPanels to rest above my bookcases located on my
back wall for additional absorption and diffusion. Unpacking the
various SmartTraps and placing them about my room took some time but
wasn't difficult at all and frankly was kind of fun. Later on in my
evaluation I went with a more traditional and symmetrical setup, which
meant putting a single 16-inch SmartTrap in each of the front corners
of my room with a single 13-inch stacked on top. I left the rear
mounted 13-inch SmartTrap stack alone and positioned the remaining
11-inch traps behind my left and right speakers as well as at my first
and second order reflection points.

I used the SmartTraps exclusively in my reference room using only my reference equipment, which consisted of my Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers, Krell Evolution 3250e amplifier, Decware CSP2 tubed line stage, Apple TV/Cambridge Audio DACMagic combo and Sony universal Blu-ray player. Cabling throughout consisted of Transparent Reference.

Performance
Commenting on the performance of acoustical treatments is a bit different than, say, a Blu-ray player or a power amplifier,
for acoustical treatments have no sound of their own. Instead they
should allow you to hear new sounds and/or aspects of your favorite
recordings that may have been previously garbled in poor room
acoustics. Based on this, ASC's SmartTraps hit a veritable home run for
they manage to clean up the bass, improve focus and even boost your
room's sense of air and space, which means dynamics - especially macro
dynamics - also improve. Improvements in my system's bass response were
the most notable, improving in both depth and detail and possessing a
firmness that was a step beyond what I was getting from my GIK
Tri-Traps - though to be fair the 16-inch TubeTraps are a bit larger in
surface area and thus can break up and absorb more of the wave. With
the TubeTraps in the corners of my room low frequencies were more
palpable and organic versus simply being deep - or should I say,
deeper.

The other noticeable difference to my system's sound once the ASC
products were installed was the added sense of air and space that
seemed to surround virtually everything within the soundstage,
especially vocals. The sonic effect wasn't subtle and at times felt as
if my room had grown by several feet in every direction, yet even with
the added "space" there was a greater sense of focus. Vocalists
especially felt more grounded not just in terms of their placement
within the center of the soundstage but grounded in the room itself -
like they were standing in front of me.

ASC_SmartTrap_acoustic_treatment_review_TT-Layout-1.gif

I should point out that while I spent considerable time with the
SmartTraps setup in ASC's recommended configuration I found that I
preferred the sound of my room when I positioned the SmartTraps in my
room in a more traditional manner. It's not that ASC's suggestion was
wrong or produced poor results, quite the opposite really, it's just
that ASC's recommended setup was aimed at providing my primary
listening position with the absolute best performance absolutely.
However, since my reference room is not a dedicated room and is in fact my living room,
ASC's layout didn't really allow for a great deal of livability within
the space when using it for anything other than listening to music or
watching movies. Thankfully, the SmartTraps are easy enough to move,
which allowed me to experiment easily and freely.

Overall, I found every claim ASC made about the SmartTrap's
performance, either on their website or via email, to be true. Unlike
pairing the wrong amp with the wrong loudspeakers there is nothing
harmful that will come from treating your room - in fact you have
everything to gain.

ASC_SmartTrap_acoustic_treatment_review_TT-Layout-2.gif

While ASC may have chosen to take me close to the
pinnacle of what was possible in my room by sending me 16 different
acoustic treatments, that doesn't mean your room will require as much
or that you even have to play host to as many treatments. You can
easily start with a couple of FullRound TubeTraps in your front corners
and build from there as time and money allows. That's the beauty of
room treatments; each time you decide to take the next step you're able
to appreciate the differences they make and believe me when I say the
differences you'll hear when using ASC's SmartTraps are not going to be
ones you can easily live without. If you're addicted to audiophile
"tweaks" then get ready to become addicted to acoustical treatments for
they will yield far greater results than any power cord, conditioner, interconnect and, in some cases, even loudspeakers will ever produce.

Competition and Comparison
There are a number of companies out there offering acoustical
treatments but there is only one TubeTrap. While few competing products
possess ASC's ability to offer up both absorption and diffusion in one
simple package, they still manage to treat many common and not so
common acoustical problems and in some cases look better and cost less.

Case in point, GIK Acoustics offers a host of acoustical products not unlike ASC's. For instance GIK sells their Tri-Trap,
which is a bass trap designed to be placed in the corners of your room
not unlike ASC's FullRound SmartTraps. While the Tri-Trap offers up
zero diffusion, its low frequency performance is on par with ASC (down
to 50Hz) and it even manages to tame some high frequencies as well.
Furthermore, The Tri-Trap retails for $129 each, which is noticeably
cheaper than even the smallest diameter SmartTrap ($338/ea). Plus, in
the all-important wife acceptance factor (WAF) test, the Tri-Traps
scored higher marks with the half dozen or so women I asked to comment.
However, where it matters most - performance - I have to give the
SmartTraps a slight edge, though you'll have to decide for yourself if
the SmartTraps' subtle sonic benefits are worth the extra dough.

If diffusion is what you're after, then GIK offers three different
diffusion products, the GridFusor ($49.99/ea), Q7d Diffuser ($349/ea)
and QRD Diffuser ($129/ea) Both the Q7d and QRD offer up superior
performance (on paper) compared to the diffusion properties of ASC's
FullRound, HalfRound and SoundPanels but at the same time going with
GIK's diffusers means twice as many products (diffusers and bass traps)
when compared to tackling your installation with ASC.

Other notable competitors include Real Traps and RPG. For more information on room acoustics please check out Home Theater Review's page on AV Racks, Home Theater Seating, Home Theater Furniture, HDTV Mounts and More.

The Downside
When it comes to fulfilling one's objective, ASC's SmartTraps more than
achieve what they set out to achieve. That being said, no product is
perfect and while I cannot fault any of the various SmartTraps'
performance, there are a number of details that you must consider
before purchasing.

For starters the SmartTraps aren't exactly subtle nor would I call
pretty. On more than one occasion guests to my home referred to them as
"jumbo sized cat scratching posts." Even clad in their tan fabric
finish, which blended better with my décor than, say, grey or black,
there was no hiding them - especially when placed directly around the
front baffles of my speakers.

In terms of build quality the SmartTraps are sturdy enough and
feature caps both top and bottom that are better in every way when
compared to GIK Acoustics' Tri-Traps; however the fabric (I feel it
looks more like carpet personally) surround isn't what I'd call very
high end or tailored. Seams, albeit along the back, are visible and not
all together straight. Plus, ASC uses a silver brad both top and bottom
to indicate which "side" of the trap is the front (diffusion) and which
is the back. It's a bit tacky and in my opinion unnecessary considering
there is a sticker atop each trap detailing which side is which as well
as the fact that the seams always run along the absorption side.

The SoundPanels' mounting method requires you to position the
mounting brackets on both your wall as well as the treatment itself,
which I found to be a bit wonky. After discovering the SoundPanels'
unique template and mounting instructions I simply leaned them against
my wall from atop my bookcase since I didn't want to mar my new drywall
for what would ultimately be a temporary solution. Most wall mounted
panels, at least the one's I've come across, hang more or less like a
picture where as the ASC SoundPanels mounting procedure is more along
the lines of a simple HDTV mount.

Lastly, in the ever persistent battle of the sexes over just about
everything - especially audio/video equipment, the SmartTraps aren't
going to win any favors with significant others, unless of course your
significant other is an A/V enthusiast too. ASC's SoundPanels and
HalfRounds are an easier pill to swallow in terms of integrating them
into a room; however I can't imagine a full compliment of full-round
TubeTraps, like the ones used in this review, being installed into an
environment that isn't preceded by the word dedicated or man.

Conclusion
Based solely on their performance, ASC's SmartTraps get my highest buy
recommendation, for while other products may save you money, they can't
match the performance contained within ASC's SmartTrap products,
specifically their full-round TubeTraps. That being said, ASC's
products are not as décor friendly as a lot of the competition and
while they may pack a two-in-one punch there are less expensive options
available-even if some of those options require you to purchase more
treatments. However, if you're an audiophile or home theater enthusiast
with a dedicated room and absolute performance is what you seek then
I'm not sure you can do better than ASC's SmartTrap line of products.

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